Earthwatch Mondays: The Teacher Chronicles

January 4, 2010

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We welcome you to join us for Earthwatch Mondays during the month of January. Dodge has been working with the Earthwatch Institute to offer Educator Fellowships to NJ K-12 public school teachers “so they can return to the classroom and community to advance an ethic of environmental stewardship and empower the students’ voices.” Over the next four Mondays you will read teacher fellow responses to a series of questions regarding expeditions that have helped them build science skills, increase scientific literacy, and improve environmental stewardship through hands-on, inquiry based learning.

Earthwatch_Kathy Geiger

Meet Kathy Geiger, a teacher fellow from Earthwatch’s Climate Change and Caterpillars expedition with Earthwatch Scientist Dr. Lee Dyer (Aug. 5-14, 2009). Kathy is a second grade teacher at the Union Avenue School in Margate, NJ.

Q. What did you learn in the field and how did you bring your experience back to the classroom?

By working with the research scientists, I learned how to collect and rear specimens of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies).

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I learned that the parasites active in this species are actually crucial to the natural balance of nature. I experienced the desert mountain habitat and was able to observe ad learn about the diverse plant life there. What a surprise! By collecting and caring for over 200 caterpillar species (and listening to the scientists), I am now very knowledgeable about the adaptive behaviors of these creatures. This includes details about camouflage, defenses, diet, location of the caterpillar on the host plant, and even how and where it pupates. The experience really blew the generalities I had been teaching out of the water!


Probably the biggest surprise to me was how little I was aware of before I went, and how important the research being done is. Following the Earthwatch expedition, I am able to extend my existing studies of Lepidoptera lifecycles, Monarch migration, and desert habitat study to include collection and rearing of native species, (It’s not that hard!), less general and more specific information about the diversity of Lepidoptera and the inhabitants (plant and animal) of the desert. Students are also learning that even the tiniest, (and seemingly disgusting) predators are an important piece of nature’s puzzle. In completing lab work, the process the professional scientists use is discussed, as well as discussion of the manpower used, the years it can take, etc…

Lastly, our study of habitat change will be enhanced by my observing first hand how varied a desert habitat is, how rich with life, and how frighteningly fragile. Since my school community is located on an Atlantic Ocean barrier island, these diverse habitats can be compared.

Q. What did your students think of the lesson?

My second graders were thrilled when I began the year energized. We added native species to our butterfly garden, captured and raised butterflies, and studied the diversity of Lepidoptera. It isn’t hard to capture a second grader’s curiosity in the natural world, but the energy was really dynamic.


I teach science to three classes, and the students from other classes benefit from my enriched program. As the students enter the room, they check the zoo, journal and record any changes, and are thinking more like researchers. By sharing my experience, I have given them a better idea of how real research is done: (how the “pros” do it!), how many people it can take, and the fact that it can take years – perhaps never really being completed. Part of our curriculum is understanding these concepts. I can now discuss the scientists I worked with as real, dedicated (and obsessed!), hard working, dynamic people.

I assign a tree observation project in the fall. This year the results were more specific and detailed. Many students observed, journaled and drew the insect life seen on the tree. The results were more detail oriented and more systematic.

Q. How did you benefit both personally and professionally from your Earthwatch experience?

I truly believe that my participation in the Earthwatch expedition was one of the top ten best experiences! It was positive and rewarding. The people I met were so inspiring – not only the scientists, Lee Dyer, Mike Kennedy, Dave Wagner and Angela Smilanich, but also the volunteers who were from all over the US and Japan.


I am afraid it was a noisy group since we had so much to talk about! I was surprised by the dynamic of the group. Actually, we had a blast! At one point, several of us were on a hike, and we found a bush covered with bugs. There were beetles (in intimate pairs), walking sticks, butterflies, etc. I think we spent an hour photographing. Finally one volunteer said, “This is what I love about you guys! Anyone else would have wanted to move on and thought I was weird for wanting to do this!” So you see, we “got” each other! Everyone had done many interesting things. Several of us are still in touch and plan to maintain friendships.

We also shared professional ideas about teaching and bringing the outside to our students. As I mentioned above, my idea of habitat and species has opened up, and this seriously changes how I teach. Along with the research study skills I have witnessed, I am more able to carry out hands-on learning, and share how the “pros” do it!

I do feel energized in my career – a good thing after 29 years!!! I also look at the ways I use energy more critically, and I want to do more with Earthwatch. I have signed up to “Walk With African Wildlife” in August (on my own dollar), but that won’t be the last!

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For a detailed “in the field” blog from another teacher fellow, see Judy Graziano’s Kiwis and caterpillars

Dodge is in conversations with Earthwatch to explore how the fellowships might become more closely aligned with other programs that emphasize sustainable community practices, including the Cloud Institute’s NJ Learns program, the Monarch Teacher Network and Sustainable Jersey. We welcome your thoughts about the teacher expeditions and potential connections to related efforts in New Jersey.

Earthwatch is the nation’s leading environmental volunteer organization supporting sustainable development worldwide, recruiting volunteers from stakeholder groups (notably teachers, students, journalists, community and government leaders and multi-national corporations) to participate in innovative research programs benefiting environmental issues and capacity building. Earthwatch’s mission is to engage people in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable world.

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